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Did Jemele Hill ‘cross the line?’ ESPN controversy reveals the news media’s enduring struggle with race.

President Trump blasted ESPN's Jemele Hill in a tweet on Oct. 10, claiming that Hill “tanked” the network’s ratings. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)
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Mainstream journalists reacted with widespread condemnation of  White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders for suggesting that ESPN host and commentator Jemele Hill deserved to be fired for tweeting that President Trump is a white supremacist.

But for many black journalists, the real outrage was the way that ESPN publicly reprimanded Hill, a popular commentator and co-host of SportsCenter, for voicing a conclusion that many African Americans have come to after watching Trump’s rhetoric and actions over the years, particularly during the past two years of his candidacy and presidency. On Wednesday night, the company responded to Hill’s apology by saying she had “acknowledged that her tweets cross the line and has apologized for doing so.”

Hill’s tweets and the company’s swift and cold condemnation of Hill was an outsized example of the daily tensions between some black journalists and the institutions they work for, news organizations that continue to struggle with directly addressing racial discrimination, both inside and outside the newsroom.

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The blowup over Hill’s comments reminded me of a recent conversation I’d had with Ibram Kendi, author of “Stamped From the Beginning,” an exploration of the origins of racist ideas. Kendi, who recently joined the faculty of American University, is black and a former journalist. He left the newsroom after a short period because of his frustration with newsrooms’ discomfort with covering race.

Kendi said in the course of studying African American history, he concluded that the news media was less interested in reporting on “the root causes of America’s racial problems” — which he argues are leaders and institutions that perpetuate racially discriminatory policies — than “on the problems of black people.”

I talked to him this week about the newsroom dynamics at the root of the controversy over Jemele Hill’s tweet. This interview has been edited for length.

Why are white people, including journalists, reluctant to call Trump racist or white supremacist?

The reason why white people are reluctant to call people racist or even white supremacists is many of them, including white liberals, have been blinded by this idea that the nation is post-racial. And also, the issue that I think white people have is, if they call Trump or somebody else racist or a white supremacist, they would then have to turn around and call themselves that because they share some — though not all — of the ideas of the people whom black people are describing as racist. So it’s deeply personal.

What does that mean for black people and others who are frustrated that their beliefs, which they feel are valid, are being dismissed by the news media?

That is a huge contradiction I think we’re dealing with here. On the one hand, the media is taking an assault on Trump as being too subjective and too political; and on the other hand, the media is being subjective and political in not allowing people to say truthful things like “Trump is a white supremacist.” They’re trying to have it both ways. It would be better for the media to plant itself in truth rather than the Trump administration’s soil of lies, instead of going back and forth. Either the media is going to create a space for a free exchange of ideas, of different types of ideas, of people making statements like Jemele made … or the media is going to censure people and circulate alternative facts. If it does the latter, it’s acting just like the Trump administration.

ESPN and other outlets are grappling with calling out Trump and racism

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reiterated her criticism of ESPN reporter Jemele Hill on Sept. 15. (Video: Reuters, Photo: CARLOS BARRIA/Reuters)

Journalists of color often express frustration that they are hired because they bring different perspectives into the newsroom, but they are often punished for expressing those perspectives.

The media is more focused and proceeded more in bringing different types of faces than bringing different types of perspectives. The main reason why any media organization should want to have different faces is it will bring different perspectives into the newsroom, perspectives that are more representative of the many cultural perspectives of people in this society, even philosophical perspectives. Jemele’s statements are statements that are widely believed, philosophically, within the African American community. For her to be censured for something that is widely believed in her community is simultaneously censuring the ideas of her community. It’s saying, “Your ideas are not allowed here.”

Is this simply a case of Hill violating the notion of objectivity?

No, it’s not. Most media, especially major media organizations, are asking their journalists, including those trained in hard news reporting, to become more thought leaders. The way they encourage them to do that is to go on other outlets and be pundits, engage in conversations with readers or viewers on Twitter and other forms of social media. But you can’t simultaneously encourage a person to be a thought leader — to engage the public and discuss not just what’s in the story or the clip — then simultaneously censure them when they say something you don’t like. Fifteen years ago, when media organizations were asking these SportsCenter anchors and newspaper reporters to just report the news, it made more sense [to prohibit them from sharing their opinions]. But within the current context, in the role of simultaneously being a news-presenter and an opinion-maker on her show, to censure her opinion doesn’t really make much sense.

What should journalism be doing to help society better confront racism?

I think one of the fundamental responsibilities of a journalist is not only to report the news, but in reporting the news, to be simultaneously categorizing what is happening in society. We categorize hurricanes as horrific for people suffering through it. We categorize mass murder as horrific. The adjectives and descriptions and categories journalists use allow us consuming their journalism to understand it. One of the categories that journalists are reluctant to use, and which breeds misunderstanding and lack of understanding is the category of racism and white supremacists. To me that means journalists should be categorizing individuals, ideas and policies as racism. It will give people the ability to understand that in the way that we so freely categorize everything else. … If somebody pushes a campaign that attracts primarily white voters on the basis that he’s going to make the country in the image of white people again, we should be willing to categorize those actions as what they are — white supremacist or racist. If journalists are not going to do it, who’s going to do it?

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